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Stereographing History: The Marion County Courthouse

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

I’ve mentioned before that I regularly search eBay for pieces of Indianapolis history which pop up for auction. A few past posts have resulted from these efforts, including a post about land purchased by Nathaniel West, a deposition of Thomas A. Morris, and a legal document describing the assignment of the dower of Elizabeth Martindale.

Last month, a posting on Twitter alerted me to several stereographs of the interior of the former Marion County Courthouse which had appeared separately on eBay. A stereograph was an early photo technology which provided a degree of 3D viewing of images. First developed in the 1850’s, the process took two very similar images which were set next to one another on a mounting. When viewed through a special viewer, a stereoscope, the images appear as one and have an appearance of three dimension, because of slight changes between the photos. The images themselves could be a variety of photo formats from that time period, including daguerreotypes. Additional information about stereographs can be found at this Library of Congress webpage, and in this article from the Smithsonian Magazine.

The stereograph from eBay, pictured below, shows a scene from the fourth floor of the courthouse. A man is standing at center, while three others stand along the right side of both images. If you look closely, you can spot the slight variations in the two photos. For example, the bottom left-hand corner of both images shows these changes in the position of the railing. Also, if you compare the three people on the right side of the image, the position of the lamp moves slightly, and one individual who was obscured on the left image, is visible in the right.

As noted on the back of the stereograph, the photographers were Smith & Dryer, a photography studio located at 30 1/2 W. Washington Street. The studio operated in the 1870's and '80's, which places these courthouse images sometime in that date range, and within the first decade following the courthouse's completion in 1876.

The courthouse was oriented east to west, with a central section that held a clocktower. The interior of the courthouse was not described in glowing terms by some in Indianapolis. Berry Sulgrove, in his History of Indianapolis and Marion County, published in 1884, described the interior as follows: “The halls are finished in “carton pierre,” or paper-stone, and fresco, with a bewildering profusion of colors and figures that make a stronger impression of gaudiness and 'gingerbread' work than richness or elegance. The court-rooms are of much the same character, with emblematic frescoes on the ceilings which are certainly no marvels of artistic taste or skill.” Sulgrove also described the style of the courthouse as "renaissance," while other sources refer to it as Second Empire. He also noted Italian artisans were brought in for the artistic finishes "to spoil a fine work that would have been grand in its simplicity if left untortured by bad taste."

As shown in the stereograph above, and the image below, the ceiling of the courthouse contained a large skylight, which ran the length of the courthouse from east to west. The image below from 1936 shows the exterior roof area of the courthouse, including the skylight. The skylight can also be seen in earlier images (such as this one from 1895) and drawings of the courthouse, although many of these are from ground level, and the skylight is difficult to spot.

Indianapolis history Marion county courthouse
Credit: Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Washington Street is on the right of this image, which is composed looking east. The skylight is visible behind the western cupola, in the foreground. This skylight, and other aspects of the structure, were the subject of some concern in the 1940's. On December 2, 1942, the Indianapolis News reported that plans were in the works to remove the cupolas on each end of the courthouse at the order of the state fire marshal due to an unspecified risk. Additionally, the News noted that engineers reported that the skylight was deemed hazardous and could collapse under weight of a heavy snow.

No action was immediately taken, and the problem remained until 1944, when additional problems also arose, including concerns about the fire risk from a carpenter's shop in the basement, out of date wiring throughout the building, and risk to the courthouse's stability due to the weight of county records stored on the fourth floor. A May 20, 1944, News article discussed an engineering report which indicated that the "skylight might fall at any time...if it fell during office hours, when the building has a normal crowd in the corridors, some person would be in danger of being hurt badly or killed." After much wrangling between county officials, contracts were finally let in early 1945 for the removal of the skylight. The image below from 1957 show the courthouse following these renovations. Note the skylight has been replace, or covered, by solid roofing, and the cupolas have been removed. Although as late as 1959, the county's weighty records were still reported as residing on the fourth floor.

Marion County courthouse Indianapolis history city market
Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

Completed in 1876 the courthouse was eventually abandoned in the early 1960's when the present City County Building was built. The old courthouse began to be demolished in 1961 while its replacement was being completed (see image below), with final demolition coming in the summer of 1962.

The video below shows scenes of the demolition of the courthouse in 1962, mostly from the interior (the first ten seconds are poor quality) and there are several views of the roof and the skylight, which appears to still be intact in some places. This video is from the digital collections of the Indiana Historical Society and is part of the WRTV Collection.

While reviewing images of the old courthouse for this post, I found that many of these other stereographs that had been on eBay could be found on the Indiana Album website. It is not clear whether these are the same items which appeared on eBay, or simply other copies of same stereographs. Whichever way these stereographs came to be on the Indiana Album, these additional images can be viewed by following this link.

The stereograph I purchased is not among those on the Indiana Album site. However, there is one which shows a very similar scene of the fourth floor, although the color of the mounting board is different, and the individuals in the image are standing in different positions. That image can be viewed at the Indiana Album via this link.

Today, the land where Marion County Courthouse once stood, directly south of the present-day City County building, is occupied by a public space known as Lugar Plaza. The photo below shows a display in that space with an image of the old Marion County courthouse, along with some history of the structure. The City County Building appears in the background.


Indianapolis News: December 2, 1942, March 4, 1944, March 7, 1944, May 21, 1944, January 1, 1945

Sulgrove, B. R. (1884). History of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co.

Washington Street, Marion County Courthouse, 1936 (Bass #235507-F), Indiana Historical Society,

Courthouse Demolition (1962), Indiana Historical Society, WRTV Collection,

New City-County Building Looms Over the Old Marion County Courthouse (1961), Indiana Historical Society,

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